Building traceability in a brand is not that easy! This is because while brands understand that they need to take the initiative, most of them don’t know where to start! This is partly because of the way supply chains are structured. Brands don’t own their production capabilities and supply chains span across countries and many different suppliers. Hence, knowledge about sourcing, producing and also trust is filtered when the communication moves through a procurement and delivery relationship. Consequently, when it comes to traceability, most brands are simply turning to their first-tier suppliers and asking them to do something about it!
On the other hand, the “traceability market” is not yet well established. Blockchain and other technologies have not yet proven that they can cope with the high-speed operations in textile manufacturing (e.g. Lab-test-traceability).
So even if brands and first-tier suppliers make a joint effort for traceability, the situation remains foggy and the chances are high that they may be betting on the wrong horse.
Sustainability and social responsibility need to be measurable.
The critical decision-maker in all this, in the end, is the consumer. While the customer may want organic cotton, they have to rely on the product label that says “organic”; they have to trust that statement without anything else to go on. But maybe that organic cotton was harvested in India, processed into yarn in Bangladesh for weaving in China and finishing in Turkey. Therefore the aspect of “organic” that consumer’s associate with an organic-label might be far from reality. This leads to the conclusion that labels, highlighting single elements of a product, do not help. How can a customer or a brand measure the right things, when the definitions of sustainable and organic remain unclear?
Decisions need hard facts; they need to be measurable!
At the same time, when you now look at it from the perspective of a procurement officer, he has only one measurable target and this is the price, and that in itself a huge issue. While yesterday it was compliance and price, the procurement department is now facing compliance, price and sustainability. But what is the key performance indicator for the latter?
Just do it!
It’s about defining targets on what one wants to do and then just doing it! In times of disruption and uncertainty, it is up to the brands to either wait for defined targets or just shape them by taking action.
There are many technologies on the market; not many of them have proven to be scalable. It is about choosing the right one to get back in touch with the supply chain. I think that is that’s the critical factor.
While it starts with the design process, there is something that must precede it. First of all, one needs a target! I need to know what do I want to do? Where do I position myself?
Then comes the issue of price, because brands are confronted with consumers who want to have a low price in the end. As a consumer, if someone asked you on the streets, what do you think about sustainability? They will say, I think we need it. It’s very good. However, they may end up buying low priced unsustainable products at the stores.
Thirdly, we need to define what sustainability means. So, when you want to make your cotton green, you just have to build some rules that apply for the whole business that accounts for traceability and carbon foot-printing.
The reality is that in the end, everybody is confused. It’s a little bit like the discussion about nutrition. According to the news, one reads, one day, milk is harmful. Next day, milk is right, then you find another study that is saying something about the fish! The same kind of confusion is within brands because they don’t know, What is the preferred fibre? What do we do with this, with it, and how do we do it? And then it all starts with the design and also with thinking beyond the normal product lifecycle.
Sustainability + Traceability = Integrity
At a broader level, I think this is a discussion of burden-sharing; about who’s making what margin? If you look at the numbers, then it’s evident that the margin is at the end of the supply chain of the value chain. I think it is the brand that needs to be the enabler for manufacturers in the end. They have the overview of design and supply chain while needing an approach to think beyond the linear lifecycle of a fabric. Looking at the younger generation in the western world and their movement against climate change, brands need to gear up. Brands need to build integrity as a cornerstone for a generation to believe in them.
But, this is something you will not change by goodwill alone. This process needs clear targets, and we need standards that were made by governments. The government has a significant role to play in ensuring circular ecosystems; for example, Germany started the governmental standards for green fashion. This is a good national initiative, but this has to be extended at the European level. European Textile Standards need to give advice and guidance on what is sustainable. This needs to cover all aspects of sustainability such as economic, social and environmental.
The only way to get the guidance into the market is about taking the lead in organising a standard that is followed by everyone. There are examples from other industries, like primary packaging. Big companies in the sector, are building open initiatives with their competitors to talk about circularity and plastics. We see some of this with brands participating in initiatives likes Fashion for Good. However, this needs to be more intense. The challenge is that the textile market is very segregated, which makes it perhaps harder to organise.
Traceability and the smaller brands selling from social platforms
I think that smaller companies are aware of what they are sourcing and from where it is sourced. Also, traceability is likely to ensure that production will be closer to the point of sales, the way it was a few decades ago. So a small European brand is likely to source from spinning mills in Europe again. Brands can then confidently say, I’m totally aware of what I do, what I need and where my commodities come from. Social media selling will give these brands a boost.
Message for 2020
We published our case study with Fashion for Good for the C&A kids pyjamas, where we also did cotton quantification. It was a huge step to go to India and just do it. We had to choose a path where we could talk about what we do and we chose fashion to demonstrate anti-counterfeiting. This is because every time our sensor meets the tracer it leaves a data set, and this leads to traceability. This was an unusual transformation with a huge response from the market. It was not the brands at first, we talked to suppliers in India who were asking us to do it.
My message for 2020 is that brands need to define sustainability clearly in order to secure integrity and then just get onto it. Start managing again and orchestrate your product yourself! Just do it!